Curtains, or veils, are an essential aspect of the Divine Liturgy. I know they seem to have fallen out of fashion in some places, but I still believe them to be indispensable. What is the purpose of a curtain? It signifies a separation between that which is holy and that which is not.
The origins of the curtain is found in the Old Testament: there was an incredibly elaborate, thick curtain that covers the entrance into the tabernacle (Ex. 26:1-2). This curtain was then placed before the Holy of Holies in the Temple. St. Paul writes the following:
Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary. And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; and over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly. (Authorized Version, Heb. 9:1-5)
The ordinances given to Israel by God reveals the worship in heaven. If one reads any of the visions of heaven from the prophets or St. John the Divine, one will immediately recognize the similarity to the Temple cult. Because this description reflects the Heavenly worship, it provides the basis for the Orthodox Altar. Like the Temple of old, the Orthodox altar is preceded by the veil, which separates the “Holiest of all” from the world.
The high priest only entered there once a year on Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement (Heb. 9:7). But now, the veil has been broken (Matt. 27:51), and the Kingdom of God has broken through into the world. Why should the Orthodox use the veil if it has been broken? The Orthodox veil can be open or shut, and each position signifies something important. When it is shut, we are closed off from the kingdom; but when it is open, the Kingdom breaks through.
The simplest way to explain this concept is through an example. During the liturgy, the curtain is closed immediately before communion. The curtain is closed, and the priest elevates the Lamb and proclaims, “The Holy Things for the Holy.” We have just been shut out of Paradise. There is a sword of fire guarding the holy doors, and it threatens death to all who dare to approach the gates of Paradise. We have no wedding garment, and the Master will order the ministers of fire (Ps. 104:4) to throw us out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. We are not holy, and we have no hope of entering… And then “One is holy, one is Lord: Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.” Our salvation! We must put on Christ who is our wedding garment. Only He can open the gates of Paradise! We say with St. Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15), and with Isaiah we cry
Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. (Is. 6:5-7)
The veil opens, and the priest comes out through the royal doors bearing the gifts:
Open to me the gates of righteousness:
I will go into them, and I will praise the Lord:
this gate of the Lord,
into which the righteous shall enter.
I will praise thee: for thou hast heard me,
and art become my salvation.
The stone which the builders refused
is become the head stone of the corner.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day which the Lord hath made;
we will rejoice and be glad in it. (Ps. 118: 19-24).
The flaming sword, “which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24), has turned into the “live coal” of Isaiah. This coal is the very fruit from the tree of life, and it will purge our sins away. We approach “In the fear of God, and with faith and love.” We fear the swift stroke of the sword, but we have faith in the promise of our Lord: “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him” (John 6:56). We must also approach with love, that is, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). If we have committed any grave sin or have not prepared ourselves for communion, then that coal will be the sword for us: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:29). The veil remains open until the end of the service. The Kingdom of God breaks into the world, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (John 1:5). The veil separating earth from heaven then remains closed until the next service.